An impressive and angelic Madonna occupies the whole foreground of the painting. She is portrayed standing and holding the Infant Jesus who is making a blessing gesture in her arms. Behind her are two angels, similar to those in the Pala Montefeltro (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera), not linked to any iconographic attribute that allows them to be recognised. Both have serious expressions and arms crossed on their chest. In the mid-19th century, the two figures had been mistakenly identified by Gaetano Moroni as Giovanni Della Rovere, lord of Senigallia, and his wife Giovanna, daughter of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Federico probably donated the painting for their wedding, celebrated in 1478, four years after the pro forma union. Therefore, the work dates between 1474 and 1478.
According to another interpretation, Federico da Montefeltro would have commissioned the work to commemorate his wife, Battista Sforza, who died in 1472. In fact, the sheet, basket, and shadow in the background are symbols linked to death. This interpretation also suggests that the Child is depicted with the features of Guidobaldo, the future duke, who was one year old at the time.
The scene shows the protagonists with a frontal cut and in half-length, set in an architecture that recalls the buildings in Urbino, such as Palazzo Ducale, and in a domestic context as suggested by the closet in the background, inserted in a frame decorated with a candelabra, perhaps alluding to the Easter candle, therefore a symbol of death and resurrection. In the background, there is another room with an open window from which the sunlight enters the room creating a reflection on the wall and illuminating the dust in the atmosphere.
The Virgin is wearing a red robe with a blue mantle, colours that are commonly attributed to her figure. On her head, she has a transparent veil, while the Child with a sullen look is wrapped in a white robe and wears a necklace made of beads and coral pendant with colours that allude to the Passion of Christ and which is traditionally used as a lucky charm for newborns, especially in Tuscany. The Child holds a white rose in his hand, referring to the rosary, purity, the Passion, and the Resurrection.
The solemnity of the figures, typical of Piero’s painting, is enhanced by light, another habitual element of his that he developed through the knowledge of Flemish painting and the works of Antonello da Messina who had taken inspiration from Nordic painting. The synthesis of form and colour creates the effect of abstraction, expressed in oil paint that lingers on details, according to the Nordic examples, thanks to diffused and clear lighting that enhances the voluminous and powerful forms.
Like most of Piero Della Francesca’s works, the interpretation of the Madonna di Senigallia is complex, full of allusions and meanings that are not easy to read. The objects seem banal, inserted to give a tone to the settings, often hiding theological allusion, like these linked to Mary and Jesus. The basket covered with a cloth on the closet shelf in the background could allude to the tomb of Christ, whereas the box on the upper shelf whose shape resembles a pyx, would be a reference to the Eucharist. The ray of light coming from the window would refer to the conception of Mary.
The history of the work’s attribution is interesting, as its author was only “rediscovered” in the nineteenth century. The first to propose the name of Piero Della Francesca was Gaetano Moroni who defined the painting in 1853 as “truly beautiful” and attributed it to the master. A few years later, in 1861, Giovanni Morelli and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle, commissioned by the newly founded Italian government to collect a catalogue of the artistic heritage of Umbria and the Marche, saw the work and valued its worth to 2500 lire. They finally published the catalogue thirty years later and even though they attributed the work to Piero, they were not too convinced, and this led some critics to also suggest Fra Carnevale as the possible author. This became a theme for a long dispute between two groups who were divided into those who supported Piero’s attribution and those who thought Fra was the author, even though the majority was behind Piero.
The work was restored in 1892, and after careful cleaning, the extremely high quality of the work re-emerged leaving no longer any doubt that the correct attribution was that of Piero Della Francesca.
Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the conservation events of the painting preserved in the National Gallery of the Marche since 1917, were rather turbulent. In fact, the painting was stolen two times in just over a hundred years. The first theft happened in October 1873 when Antonio Pesaresi, together with his accomplice named Antonio Bincio, stole the work to give it to the English collector who wanted to put it on the market, but they were stopped in Rome. The second theft happened in February 1975, when the work was stolen from the National Gallery of the Marche together with La Muta by Raphael and the Flagellation, also by Piero Della Francesca.
The stolen paintings were found in Switzerland a year later.
The life of the painter is not well documented and even his date of birth is not certain. It is known that Piero was born in Sansepolcro in a wealthy family and he probably got his artistic training in Borgo Sansepolcro, which was culturally active place for artists at the time.
Piero began his activity as a painter of pennants and flags with the insignia of Sansepolcro but also as the author of painted works in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista. However, his real training took place in Florence, where he moved in his thirties and started at Domenico Veneziano’s workshop, whose works truly influenced him, especially when it comes to use of light. In that period he made the first painting attributed to him, Madonna with Child, which was already in the Florentine collection of Contini Bonacossi, in which the artist used perspective, clear light and solemn figures which was typical of his works.
Back in Sansepolcro, where he was also active in politics, he painted the famous Polyptych of the Misericordia (1445-1462), now in Museo Civico. Piero della Francesca spent the following years traveling at the service of various Italian courts, such as Urbino, Ferrara and Bologna, introducing himself also to Flemish painting and paintings of Antonello da Messina, which greatly influenced his work.
In 1451 Piero stayed in Rimini, at the service of lord Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta who commissioned him the fresco with St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta at the Tempio Malatestiano, the family mausoleum.
The following year he stayed in Arezzo, where he made the frescoes with the Stories of the True Cross which he worked until 1458 and resumed the work two years later, following his stay in Rome, where he painted the Dream of Constantine. The famous cycle is considered one of Piero’s masterpieces.
Between the 1460s’ and 1470s’ he stayed in Perugia and Urbino at the court of Federico da Montefeltro. He painted the famous double profile portrait of Federico and his wife Battista Sforza, preserved today in the Uffizi Galleries, closely linked to Flemish culture for its setting, minimal details, use of light and colors.
In the 1470s’ in Urbino he also painted the Madonna di Senigallia (Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle March) and Pala Montefeltro (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) both presented with a monumental structure and characterized by the serious and austere figures, which was typical of his painting.
Back in Sansepolcro he devoted himself to mathematical and perspective studies, which he cultivated his whole life and published in some treatises. Piero traveled once more to Rimini before returning to his hometown where he died in 1492.
National Gallery of the Marche